29 November 2006

The Bioregional Economy: A Constructive Response to Climate Change

Bioregions are natural social units determined by ecology rather than economics, and that can be largely self-sufficient in terms of basic resources such as water, food, products and services. Bioregionalism has at its heart two of the central principles of green economics: balance and cycles. Ecology demands that we recognize our part in a complex web of natural systems and this should reflect the places we choose to live and how and where we choose to access our resources. This is what we mean by living in balance with nature. Respecting the natural cycles of life is often referred to as ‘closing the loop’, so that within our bioregional economy we are responsible for all our waste and we have a neutral impact on the natural cycles that maintain the earth in balance, primarily the carbon cycle.
Your bioregion is effectively your backyard. It is the part of the planet you are responsible for. Bioregionalism means living a rooted life, being aware of where your resources come from and where your wastes go. It is the opposite of a life lived in the limited knowledge that food comes from Tesco, leaving everything to the global corporations who are only too willing to take on this responsibility in return for their profits. Unlike political boundaries, bioregional boundaries are flexible, but should be guided by the principle of subsidiarity in the case of any individual resource or service. Within the bioregional approach beginning with the local is a principle that trumps principles such as price or choice. Within our bioregional economy we are responsible for all our waste and we have a neutral impact on the natural cycles that maintain the earth in balance, primarily the carbon cycle. From a bioregional perspective the ideal way to organise your economy is by borrowing for your needs from the local environment.

What can you do?

  • Stop flying and drive less; if you must drive set up a biodiesel recycling plant in your community like Sundance have done in Ammanford: http://www.sundancerenewables.org.uk/

  • Shop more locally, especially farmers’ markets, or start your own community farm, like the one in Stroud: http://www.stroudcommunityagriculture.org/

  • Form a bioregional group and conduct an annual audit of your consumption to see which changes will reduce your carbon emissions most rapidly

  • Have more fun doing things that don't produce CO2, like joining a choir or inviting your friends round for dinner

  • Join your local coop and make sure you do at least 90% of your food shopping there; John Lewis (including Waitrose) is also a coop

  • Start you own food coop organizing bulk deliveries from suma or essential (both workers co-ops: http://www.suma.co.uk/ and http://www.essential-trading.co.uk/

  • Start a group in your town and register as a Transition Town: http://www.transitiontowns.org/

Learning a stern lesson

As part of the Green Party’s submission to the Stern Review I wrote that ‘the globalised capitalist economy is inherently unsustainable because it is based on turning energy into money without regard for ecology. Climate change is just the first and most urgent piece of evidence that this is the case.’ OK, this is rather trite and simplistic, and says nothing of the vast proportion of capitalism (around 97%) that generates profits by speculating on the future values of currencies or commodities, but as a slogan it has much to recommend it.
In the sustainable economy energy will the important measure rather than money. In fact these two can be joined through the creation of a currency backed by carbon, as first suggested by Richard Douthwaite. Scarcity is one of the key requirements of a successful form of money (hence the use of gold or cows in other societies at other times) and now our most valuable scarce resource is the global atmosphere.
The poverty of the South can be explained in terms of their inadequate consumption of the global economy’s energy; the over-consumption of the rich, developed countries can be explained in the same way. The shares of carbon dioxide of poor countries do not match their shares of world population. The comparison of India and the USA is the most striking: a direct swap of carbon dioxide would resolve around a fifth of the inequality at a stroke. India is responsible for 5% of the global output of CO2 but has nearly 20% of the world’s population; the USA, by contrast, is responsible for 25% of emissions but with only 5% of world population.
The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a UN panel of experts who have exhaustively analysed available data about the consequences of carbon dioxide emissions to estimate the ‘carrying capacity’ of the planet, that is how much CO2 it is reasonably safe for us to emit. The Global Commons Institute (GCI) in London has developed a model for sharing this total amount fairly between the world’s people on a per capita basis, and then for reducing this amount rapidly over time, called Contraction and Convergence (C&C). If we work with the year 2000 the sums work out rather neatly, since the model suggests around 6 billion tonnes of carbon can be produced, and the planet had around 6 billion people, which allows us 1 tonne each. At present in the UK we produce around 2.5 tonnes, which gives a clear idea of the size of cuts required just to reach fair shares today, even before the cuts that are necessary.
A comparison of CO2 emissions by country shows how the poorer the country is the less of its share of carbon dioxide it is producing and the more it needs an input of energy from the richer nations. At present we measure economic energy in terms of money, usually dollars. In an economy that respected planetary limits we would measure activity in terms of energy, since this is the scarcest planetary resource. As green economists we need to move towards an economy which uses energy as both a way of measuring the economy and, ultimately, the basis for its means of exchange or money.